Thursday, January 1, 2009

Just what my kids are saying...

I have a feeling that education-minded adults don't listen enough to their students. In particular when those students are middle-school kids.

Here's an interesting article:

Critics Say Newbery-Winning Books Are Too Challenging for Young Readers -

Even more interesting are the comments made by reading middle-schoolers about book choice.

What do they dislike? Essentially, gloomy, sad, and didactic reading.

What do they like? Engaging books.

Why are engaging books (read: entertaining) equated with fluff? Why is "literary value" so often substituted for pure reading pleasure?

My own child has noticed that the books selected by the schools have an overly-high instance of missing parents and miserable childhoods. And she doesn't want to read them. Now my child is an advanced reader. She doesn't discard books out of laziness, but out of dissatisfaction and boredom.

So did I. I essentially disliked the literary masterpieces we had to read at school. True, it was a French curriculum, and the education system there was even more rigid than it is in the USA, so the teachers didn't have much choice (and I'm not saying it is or isn't as rigid today -- I'm not involved with it, so I have no comment).

However, dissatisfaction and boredom didn't prevent me from reading classics as a teenager. Like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. War and Peace and Crime and Punishment come to mind. And others, many others, including poetry, just for the pure enjoyment of it.

Why not Zola, or Balzac, or Melville?

I wasn't enchanted by them.

Enchanted by War and Peace? Well, sure. It's a historical saga. It has adventure, romance, elopement, fight scenes. That I preferred the War over the Peace only says something about my own inclinations. That I didn't skip the Peace and remember it to this day says something about the entertainment value of this masterpiece.

And Crime and Punishment? I was very fortunate that my father urged me to read that one as an introduction to Dostoyevsky's world. Because it's a psychological thriller, full of suspense and dark, twisted characters. It was fun. Really.

Where did my enjoyment of reading lead me? To a Master's degree in literature, to writing my own stories.

The difference between the authors I like and can read over and over again, and those I can't get into, is usually in their entertainment value. If necessary, I can read anything, and retain it. I've had to read books and authors I found dull and pointless in my quest for a graduate degree. But there was no enjoyment.

Because, for my part, I love storytellers. I love world-weavers. I want a book to take me away from my world, my characters, my life, and into the world and mind of the author. I want to be told a story, with enough skill that my own imagination will supply details and subtleties, without pushing every single detail on me.

The oldest profession in the world is not what you think. It's that of the storyteller. Think about it. Sheherazade seduced the King and bound him to her through her tales. The rest is just a small part of the seduction. The tales came first. The stories. Imagination. Narratives that illumine and instruct, and make a point, for certain, but she had to catch the King's interest first, and maintain it from night to night. She had to engage him.

Now before you start saying that I reject literature that's all language, that has more to do with style and structure than with plot and character, please wait.

My other daughter delights in texts that are difficult, that play with sentence length and rhythm, with words and sounds. She understands the interplay of language and meaning, of plot and style. She values it over pure narrative, over intrigue and resolution.

Content vs. form, plot vs. language -- we could state it as an opposition, as two mutually exclusive elements.

Then open a great classic. Read it as a Story meant for entertainment and delight, not a big, heavy book you have to slog through. And you'll see that the greatest writers blend form and content into a mesmerizing whole.

Try it. You could be surprised.